Dear Doctor, Am I SAD? 5 signs you have seasonal affective disorder.

It’s almost Spring and it seems winter is just not leaving us this year. Have you ever noticed your mood dips over winter? Ever wondered why? Is it just winter blues? Or could you have seasonal affective disorder (SAD)?

SAD is something I have battled with over the years. Fortunately my symptoms are only mild and now that I understand what it is, I manage by getting plenty of light during the winter months. It’s a condition that affects many of us in different degrees so read on to see if you could have it too!

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression, the episodes recur at the same time each year during the winter months. It usually starts to occur in late teens to late twenties and is four times more common in women than men. It should occur at least two years running to be classed as true SAD and go into full remission during spring to summer.

Here are five signs that could indicate you have seasonal affective disorder.

1. Seasonal changes

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This one is a little obvious. People with SAD report symptoms commonly start at the beginning of September, with the peak depression and anxiety in December, symptoms  can persist until springtime in April. Some people have the reverse and find mood dips over the summer but this is less common.

The reduced level of sunlight in autumn and winter may cause SAD. The decrease in sunlight can disrupt your body’s internal clock. Light and darkness are thought to affect mood and behaviour via interactions between circadian rhythms and the biological clocks which control them.

2. Tiredness

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OK so this one is a little hard to judge. Does anyone feel like getting up early when it’s dark and cold outside?

The change in season can affect the balance of the body’s melatonin levels, in turn affecting sleep patterns.

Difficulty waking up, increased sleep, deccreased energy, lethargy and difficulty concentrating can all be signs that you are suffering from SAD.

3. Changes to eating habits

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Binge eating during winter is something we are probably all guilty of. However it could actually be a sign of seasonal affective disorder. People with SAD report increased carbohydrate craving, increased appetite and yes with that comes some excess weight gain.

4. Changes in mood

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Mood changes are perhaps the hardest part of SAD to deal with. People may start to withdraw from family and friends. Symptoms of depression, anxiety, irritability and even suicidal thoughts can occur.

A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood, might play a role in SAD as reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin.

5. Physical symptoms

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This one is probably the least specific of all the signs as they can manifest differently in people. Unexplained headaches, palpitations and generalised aches and pains are some of the things to look out for.

Treatment 

In people with SAD, it is important to start non-drug treatment while you have early symptoms such as lethargy and carbohydrate cravings around September.

There are also some simple measure you can take to reduce your chances of getting SAD symptoms. Spend more time out of doors and try to work in bright conditions. Exercise outside regularly if you can stand the weather and also maintain a healthy diet.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), light therapy and prescribed medications have all been found to help to reduce SAD symptoms during winter months.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines state that the depression in SAD patients should be treated the same way as non-seasonal depression (read more about SAD here).

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